Book Review: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, by Leigh Bardugo

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_language_of_thorns.pngNo. 1 New York Times bestselling author, Leigh Bardugo, has charmed the world of fantasy readers yet again with a new book of delightful stories. The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, beautifully illustrated by Sara Kipin, is set in Bardugo’s imaginarium, the Grishaverse.

The six stories, three of which have been previously published, explore the labyrinthine world of desire, love, loss and sacrifice. For most of its inhabitants, the ever-human experience of want keeps them in a state of constant wandering.

‘Ayama and the Thorn Wood’ tells the story of the young Ayama, a girl whose wise tales change the heart of a monster and a kingdom’s future. ‘The Too-Clever Fox‘ concerns the perilous life of an animal community at the mercy of hunters. In ‘The Witch of Duva’, we see a fresh retelling of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, where the magic of the woods brings Nadya to see the bitter truth. In ‘Little Knife, a powerful river spirit deals with the ravages of desire and its damning effects. Similarly, in ‘The Soldier Prince’, a Clocksmith and his clever creation discover the curse of obsession. The final tale, ‘When Water Sang Fire’, is strongly evocative of the The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the story of two sildroher, Signy and Ulla, whose enchanted voices can summon storms and determine the fate of creatures from the land and sea.

I highly commend Bardugo’s writing. The originality of her tales lies in their plot twists and stark thematic and image contrasts, which liken fantasy to the thorny world of reality wherein pain and beauty are inseparable. I was hooked at the very beginning of each story.

It helps that the stories in The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic can be read on their own. They form an excellent starting point for potential sojourners of the Grishaverse: home to The Shadow and Bone Trilogy and The Six of Crows Duology. Step inside, the dark woods await . . .

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9781510104518

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Book Review: City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

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cv_city_of_crows.jpgI couldn’t find out if Paris was ever known as the ‘city of crows’, but crows, rats, disease, decay, plague, superstition, religious zealotry, witchcraft, burnings at the stake, evil, the devil, potions and spells all feature in this Paris of the 1670s. It is impossible for us in our sanitised, almost sterile and secular existences to even begin to imagine how hideous life was 350 years ago. The imagination required to create this story, and the skill to craft it is immense.

The mental pictures and images conjured up by the writer are so incredibly vivid. The physical descriptions of Paris, its poverty and depravity; the rural country side and forests in their untamed beauty and simplicity of living; life as a prisoner sentenced to years working as a galley slave; what people wore, what they ate, how they behaved towards each other (with mostly cruelty and ruthlessness).

But it is magic, black magic mostly, that is at the core of this novel. As a species, our whole society rests on how we explain the unexplained. Myths, legends, fairy tales, religions all present explanations for where we come from, what makes the sun rise every day, where storms come from… we worshipped gods of harvest to ensure food for the next year. These are just a few of the thousands of ideas we have come up with to explain the inexplicable – the ultimate tribute being a sacrifice of animals or humans to ensure the favour of the gods. So in 17th century Europe, with plague and pestilence or simply unexplained illness running rampart with no end in sight, and with praying getting no one anywhere, it is hardly surprising that people resorted to magic as yet another tool in the battle to stay alive and  get ahead.

Charlotte Picot is a young peasant woman who has lost her husband to plague, and three other children in years past. She has decided to leave her sick village in search of a better life, and with her young son Nicolas, takes to the road. Nicolas is kidnapped by child slave traders, Charlotte left for dead. She is rescued by an old woman, well known and feared by locals as a witch. The witch passes to Charlotte her spells book, shows her what she can do to get her son back, and sends her on her way.

At the same time, an unusual man who goes by the name of Lesarge is also on the road, making his own way to Paris. He is probably what we would nowadays calls a trickster, a magician, a con man. He has been released from a ten year sentence on the galleys, and is on his way to recover a fortune he knows exists in Paris. Somehow, magic brings he and Charlotte together, and they forge an unlikely alliance. After a number of adventures and encounters, they make their way to Paris.

It is definitely a strange book, and it walks a very fine line between the real world and the magical world. Both of the main characters are extraordinary, and I veered from liking to disliking to liking to being horrified by what they will do together and individually to survive. There is always that little bit of tension too in the writing – will they see a way around their differences and fall for each other, or will they always remain distrustful and scared of each other.

Unfortunately, for me, the magic got to be a bit much. The ending was most unexpected, rather horrifying, and ultimately plain silly. However, as another review I read pointed out, we have no way of knowing what state of mind Charlotte may have been in, deeply grieving, losing her last surviving child, always on the brink of finding him, but never doing so. Is it this state of mind that tips her over the edge? Or are there really darker forces at work? And Lesarge’s moral compass is somewhat disturbed as well, and he struggles to break away from his past life in the shady world of magic, potions and poisons.

There is a fantastic imagination at work here, and the writing is terrific. But there is also a lot of magic and weirdness, and if the fantasy genre is not your thing, this will only be a 3 star. If fantasy is your thing, then this could well be a great read for you.

City of Crows
by Chris Womersley
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781760551100

 

Book Review: The Locksmith, by Barbara Howe

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cv_the_locksmithWho is the Locksmith, and what role does he play in this fantasy tale? You will keep this question in mind as you read through the adventures of Lucinda Guillierre, a young girl living with her stepsister Claire and her stepmother, in the magical world of Frankland, ruled by The Office.

The Office was created in historic times by the Great Coven, which established the four offices of Air, Fire, Earth, and Water, and their leaders. Each Office has a Guild, for the study and training of Witches and Wizards of each element.

Unsettled by her lack of magical progress, she resigns herself to a future as a normal person, but agrees to take her sister Claire to challenge the path to meet the Fire Warlock, to have a wish granted. She takes with her, her only true possessions her father left her —two large books of the history of the magic which fills their world. Hold that thought as you read…

Claire wants to use Lucinda to pass the challenge and meet the Warlock, to make her wish, and to have Lucinda work off the exchange for the spell. That’s not quite how things turn out. Lucinda is the one who gets the wish, and in her three years at the Fire Guild serves in the kitchen, between her studies of magic. She takes some time realising that those who see her as a potential Fire Witch are right.

As her studies progress, so do her feelings for the Fire Warlock, and she realises he is the writer of her own two history of magic books. As the story develops, the realm in which they live becomes turbulent with political rumours of the threat of attack from Europa, which surrounds Frankland. Amid the turmoil, we are with Lucinda as she faces rivalry, hostility, and jealousy—and fear.

Lucinda’s story in this book ends most satisfactory, yet with just enough unknowns to make the reader want, as I do, the second in the series. A really great closing, and of all the modern fantasies I have read, this is a definite leader.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

The Locksmith: Book 1 in the ‘Reforging’ series
by Barbara Howe
Published by SQ Mag
ISBN: 9781925496284

 

WORD: Making it Overseas, with Ben Sanders, Tania Roxborogh and Helen Lowe

Event_Making-it-OverseasAll New Zealand authors dream of making it overseas – these three have. Tania Roxborogh has her historical novel (set in the time of Macbeth) Banquo’s Son in the UK, USA and Asia. Ben Sanders is Auckland-based, and his fourth novel, American Blood, is in the Australian, NZ, US and European markets. Helen Lowe is Christchurch-based, and all of her fantasy books have been published overseas, rather than in New Zealand. They are in the USA, UK, Australia and NZ and European markets.

Lowe was told straight out of the gates, that nobody in New Zealand would publish a fantasy series. After trying to sell her series to publishers in Australia and the USA herself, she gave up (she stopped counting rejections after 15) and realised a full series from an unknown author was too much of a gamble for any publisher to take at that point. She needed to write a stand-alone book. An Australian editor she had spoken to with her series advised her that she should try the US market, and find an agent. In response to a later question about how she found her agent she said – I looked at who the writers who wrote in my genre used: this triangulated at The Writer’s House, so that’s where I started and lucked out. Her new agent sold Thornspell in just three weeks, and the series sold after that, after about 4-5 months. Being published in the US opened up the world.

I had seen Ben Sanders’ rise over the past couple of years and thought he must have just been plucked from obscurity when Warner Brothers saw the unpublished manuscript of American Blood and optioned it. Oh no, it was a bit deeper than that! He had an agent offer to represent him after his first three books were published through HarperCollins NZ, and checked them out before accepting (note to readers: if somebody is offering to sell your book, always check them out first). His agent is through Wordlink. It took three years to get a book accepted, and happened mainly because he met an editor at Pan Macmillan personally while on holiday in New York. He had to set this book in America – hence American Blood, which was published last year in the US.

It took Tania Roxborogh seven years to be an overnight success. Her super-enthusiastic agent came on board in May 2009. It took until October 2014 to have any luck placing the novel with a publisher: by 10 January in 2015 she had a contract, with an advance of $10,000 US. It took a lot of persistence, and a lot of trust on both her agent’s and her part; but she got there!

Things she has learned: the Australian market is more accepting if NZ writers come via the UK publishing houses. And the sales are so much bigger than the NZ market: by the end of its run in 2015, Banquo’s Son had sold 5,600 copies. Internationally within 2 months in the UK market, 9,500 copies had sold. Vanda quipped, “You have finally harnessed the machine.”

All three of our guests have found having an agent essential, though none have experienced the ‘dream agent’ experience. The most helpful things with agents is they know what is being pitched, and they know what is being published by whom. Sanders said his agent was essential to get him contacts in New York. “Having an agent is like any business relationship, you have to go into it with your eyes open”, says Helen Lowe.

Vanda then asked whether being an author from a small country was an impediment to being published overseas. Not really, was the general agreement. Sanders’ Auckland crime novels weren’t picked up internationally until he agreed to ‘Americanise’ them. He is currently doing this, changing ‘petrol stations’ for ‘gas stations’, and the bonus of this is that he can change any errors he finds along the way. Sanders adds, “It’s not just a matter of if the editor says ‘yep I like it’ – that person needs to talk to the Editorial Director, and so on all the way up the commissioning chain.”

For Helen Lowe, she never had to worry about where they are set: she writes Fantasy, set in different worlds. And Thornspell was set in Middle-ish Europe. The US doesn’t even change the language in her books, they just change the spelling. Her UK publisher simply publishes it, US spelling and all, knowing their market doesn’t mind.

Lowe also addressed the idea of self-publication in the Fantasy genre. She thinks this only really works if you already famous: the main thing traditional publishing has over self-publishing is distribution. “And if you are doing it yourself, you will be locked into Amazon’s rights model, possibly not in favourable circumstances.”

This was a fascinating discussion, about something I’d long been curious about. In my day job at Booksellers NZ, I frequently post up announcements about the sales of US / UK rights: now I understand exactly why this is such a fantastic achievement for those hard-working authors that it happens to. Well done to Helen Lowe, Ben Sanders and Tania Roxborogh for being Olympic-class writers!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Making it Overseas – Ben Sanders, Helen Lowe and Tania Roxborogh

Daughter of Blood
by Helen Lowe
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9780356500058

Thornspell
by Helen Lowe
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780375844799

American Blood
by Ben Sanders
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760291570

Banquo’s Son
by Tania Roxborogh
Published by Thomas & Mercer
ISBN 9781503945821

Book Review: Fellside, by M R Carey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fellsideFellside is a prison, a correctional facility for women to be precise, where three thousand women ‘form a community committed to a practical ideal of rehabilitation’. Sounds idyllic. Not. A women’s prison is not a place that most people get to see the inside of, but we sure get plenty of insight from programmes like Bad Girls, Orange is the New Black, and Wentworth. Really tough women, young and old, fighting to survive. Fellside is no different.

There have been a number of best-selling novels in the last few years which have as their central premise a young woman who has suffered memory loss. Jess Moulson is yet another young woman in the unfortunate position of having her life dramatically affected by amnesia.

The story opens with Jess regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, handcuffed to the bed, being treated for serious burns, smoke inhalation. Gradually, she remembers that she was involved in a fire in her flat that led to the death of a ten-year-old boy who lived in the flat upstairs. Jess is a drug addict and has vague recollection that she set the fire for reasons that she can’t quite recall. By page 25 she has been found guilty of murder, the subject of the most awful press coverage, and sentenced to Fellside. Her court-appointed lawyer is doubtful that the full and factual story has come out but can’t get Jess to see sense, her guilt at the death of young Alex completely overwhelming her.

So life in prison begins, and it’s not a bed of roses. Now, I am not a fan of supernatural or fantasy fiction, I really just do not get it. But very cleverly the author who, under a pen name has written for Marvel comics and writes his own graphic fiction, introduces what can only be called a ghost character – a young boy who comes to Jess in her sleep, in her dreams, taking her with him to his world. She is convinced this is the spirit of Alex, and gradually realises that he is helping her to see what really happened the night of the fire. And so the mystery of Alex’s death begins to be solved.

But it is definitely creepy, weird and unsettling. At the same time as Jess is moving between the real world and the spirit world, she has to adapt to prison life in all its ruthlessness, cruelty, bent prison officers, and survival of the fittest code. It is pretty grim. What was interesting and did help to soften the brutality was the back stories of the prisoners and how they came to be in Fellside, including Jess’s own story. As awful as they all are, terrible things happened to the women that led them to prison, so it is hardly surprising the terror continues.

At nearly 500 pages, already one can see that there is lot going on in this novel. It is tricky to define what sort of novel it is – a psychological thriller? Murder mystery? Supernatural? Fantasy? Horror? At times it does wobble, and for me, I did lose my way with all the wanderings Jess and Alex’s spirit do in the pursuit of justice. But living in such a prison environment, wouldn’t you too want to escape to inside your head?

If you get past all the spooky action, then this is actually quite a riveting story. Life in the prison is graphically depicted, all the characters are very well drawn with great depth, there are lots of twists in the plot and surprises. And in the end, justice is served.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Fellside
by M.R. Carey
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9780356503592

Book Review: The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson

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Brandon Sanderson is one of the finest and most reliable fantasy authors writing today.cv_the_bands_of_mourning

Bands of Mourning is the 6th Mistborn book and the third in the second series (sometimes known as the Wax and Wayne series). Having only read Alloy of Law, the first in the series, I went into Bands of Mourning familiar with the characters, but with some holes in their history. This did not, it turned out, matter too much. The occasional reference to the events preceding Alloy and from Shadows of Self were illuminating, while making me eager to fill in the gaps.

Centuries after the events that unfolded in the original Mistborn trilogy, the world of Scadrial has evolved into a semblance of modernity, coupled with Victorian-era technology, sprinkled with an element of steampunk and garnished with a touch of the Western. The use of allomantic and feruchemical magic is fairly commonplace, with some individuals – like Wax and Wayne – being capable of manipulating both.

In this instalment, Waxillium Ladrian, lawman-turned-nobleman, learns of a mythical artifact known as the ‘bands of mourning’. These bands were possessed by the Lord Ruler, and are said to grant their bearer immense power – almost making him a god. A researcher has found evidence that they may exist, and Wax, along with his friend, indomitable and irrepressible, Wayne, is hired to make the journey and uncover the artifact. Joining him on the mission are quick-witted Marasi, herself an allomancer; sensible and level-headed Steris, Wax’s fiance, prepared for (almost) any situation; and MeLaan, a shape-shifting immortal with a slightly skewed view on propriety. This rag-tag (but highly efficient) bunch must make their way through hostile terrain in a harrowing race by rail, land and air, to beat the bad guys to the prize. Along the way, Wax uncovers a dangerous secret society – the Set – and the means to rescue his sister from a brutal fate.

This is a highly enjoyable romp, with wonderfully memorable characters and a fast-paced, semi-crazed plot. Wry humour is scattered liberally throughout, as well as a good dose of twists and surprises. Whilst I would suggest the reading of the earlier books first: the original Mistborn series explains the Ascension, and the background behind the kandra, and from the sounds of things, I missed a whole lot of interesting twists and turns in Shadows of Self; Bands of Mourning stood quite succesfully on its own.

I  recommend Brandon Sanderson highly to fans of high fantasy, for his complex magic system, brilliant world-building, excellent characterisation and his skill in weaving them all together into a gripping and coherant story.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Bands of Mourning
by Brendon Sanderson
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 9781473208261

Book Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest, by Holly Black

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_darkest_part_of_the_forestThere are no words to describe how brilliant this book is. Holly Black is an amazing author with a very broad imagination, and has had many books published previously. This is the only book of hers that I have read, but I can’t wait to read and review more now.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is about a teenage girl called Hazel and her older brother Ben. They live in the little town of Fairfold, near the darkest part of the forest, and in the forest is a glass casket. Inside lies a sleeping faerie prince, that none can rouse. But after years trapped inside his casket, someone (or something) wakens him. This may seem like your average fairytale full of faeries, knights, princes and true love, but it certainly is not.

I really enjoyed the drama and mystery of the storyline. The Darkest Part Of The Forest is a good book for any teen interested in romance, adventure, or who loves a great fairytale. I am inspired to read more of Holly Black’s novels.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston

The Darkest Part of the Forest
by Holly Black
Published by Indigo
ISBN 9781780621746